DALLAS (AP) — Ex-NFL running back and ESPN announcer Craig James on Thursday endorsed former opponent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the Republican nomination runoff battle to fill Texas' open U.S. Senate seat.
James was one of four major GOP candidates vying to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. But he struggled to gain much traction and finished a distant fourth in Tuesday's primary, winning only about 3.5 percent of the ballots cast.
Dewhurst, who has held the powerful lieutenant governorship since 2003, finished first but fell well short of the majority needed to avoid a July 31 runoff with Ted Cruz, a tea party favorite and former state solicitor general.
"I am a voter now. I am no longer in the race. My vote will be cast for Lt. Gov. Dewhurst," James said at an event with Dewhurst at Dallas County Republican Party headquarters.
Former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, who finished third in the Republican primary, has yet to endorse anyone. James said he had spoken to Leppert but preferred not to discuss what was said. He also said he "traded phone calls" with Cruz before deciding on his endorsement — but never actually spoke to him.
James said the runoff is "between a slick lawyer funded and beholden to Washington special interests and a lifelong Texas businessman."
Dewhurst amassed a personal fortune worth more than $200 million running his own energy company. Cruz has been backed by several national, limited-government groups, including the Washington-based Club For Growth.
The Cruz camp was dismissive of the endorsement. In a statement to The Associated Press, spokesman James Bernsen deadpanned: "Congratulations to Lt. Gov. Dewhurst."
Even James himself acknowledged there was some irony in his announcement, saying "I know a lot of people beyond the 4 percent in votes I got were looking at what I'm going to do."
It was easy to poke fun because James is a polarizing figure across most of Texas — and his endorsement may mean little to Dewhurst.
While working for ESPN as a commentator in 2009, James infuriated Texas Tech fans after he complained to school administrators that then-football coach Mike Leach mistreated his son Adam, a former Red Raiders player, by twice ordering him to stand for hours confined in a dark place after he got a concussion.
Leach was fired but denied mistreating the younger James and has said Craig James was a meddling dad who badgered coaches to get his son more playing time. Leach also contends an $800,000 bonus he was due on Dec. 31, 2009, was the reason he was dismissed.
Older Texans, meanwhile, remember James' involvement with scandal-ridden Southern Methodist University.
James played at SMU in Dallas from 1979 to 1982 and was a major part of the record-setting "Pony Express" backfield with Eric Dickerson. The Mustangs won Southwest Conference championships in 1981 and 1982, but the team was also embroiled in several NCAA investigations.
In 1987, the NCAA hit SMU with the so-called "death penalty" for repeated infractions, shutting down the program for a year after concluding that the school continued to pay players, even after a 1985 promise to stop. SMU also chose not to play in 1988.
James had already been gone from SMU for several years when the penalty was imposed, but he acknowledges taking "insignificant amounts" while playing there.
But Dewhurst brushed aside all concerns Thursday, saying "I'm delighted to have a fellow conservative businessman with me who knows how to meet a payroll." He was referencing James' experience as a rancher and businessman in addition to his work with ESPN.
Cruz has challenged Dewhurst to five debates in the two months before the runoff. Asked about that, Dewhurst said he'd have no problem doing even more.
"Why just five?" he asked. "We can have as many debates as we've got TV stations to carry them."